Monica Arac de NyekoUgandaWriting2012
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From The Banana Eater

 

Her name was Nalule. Everyone called her Naalu, except for the silly estate boys who spent their afternoons whistling after girls. They called her Shortido. They said she was a dwarf. That her legs were short and fat. That her calves were the size of Kimbo tins. The boys said there were no more than twenty strands of hair on Naalu’s scalp. But these things weren’t true. Naalu’s hair was thin, but it was dark and beautiful. Her calves were more like tumpeco mugs.

 

Naalu and her family lived a block from us, in number G.16 in the housing estates. Many things about our houses were similar. Their size: a kitchen and store, a sitting room and a bedroom. The paint: cream and magenta against a brown tiled roof. Only our backyards were different. Theirs was almost bare—grassless and without any bougainvillea, thornbrush, or red euphorbia fencing to keep trespassers or vagabonds away. Ours was lush with paspalum grass. We had flowers too. In the rain season, dahlias and hibiscuses bloomed; so did roses and sophornitellas, cosmos and bleeding heart vines. Everyone who passed by our house said the garden gave a fine display of color and fragrance. “What is your secret?” they asked. Ma said it was hard work, but I thought she should say it was passion.

 

Our garden was different from any other in the estates. Many people assumed that Ma had been born with the ability to tell which flowers worked best with which shrubs, which leaves looked best if planted at the edges, which plants kept snakes away. But Ma’s gardening knowledge had been transplanted from her school years at Our Lady of Good Counsel, the Catholic girl’s school. Home economics was compulsory then. Ma never did like the cooking and baking bits. She saw no point in learning cuisines whose ingredient names were so foreign they could have been strange illnesses. But she did like gardening. A house, she often said, starts at the backyard. See the state of the backyard and you’ll know if you want to enter.

 

Gardening might have seemed viable in Catholic boarding school, but in the real world things were different. In the estates, only potato fields and cassava survived to maturity. They were unspectacular. The silly boys were not interested in them; nor were the children who liked to roam about the houses breaking windows or anything that looked fragile. Plant fences and flowers, on the other hand, were different. They were colorful. They were boastful. They attracted everyone. In that sense, then, our garden was exposed. Because it was void of any deterrents, it was like a gateless home: anyone could enter. And oftentimes people did stop to examine the garden arrangement or to pick flowers to stick in their hair. These people were generally not troublesome. Ma tolerated them. The lot she found unbearable, though, were the market vendors.

 

Every day, as soon as the sun started to show, as soon as customers turned scarce, the vendors left the market. They crossed Estate Close, the road that separated the market from the estates, and came to sit in our backyard. They were choosy, those vendors. They avoided all the other backyards on the block. They came straight for ours, and laid down their tired and sweaty bottoms. Our backyard was a place to forget about the market and its unsold sacks of potatoes and bananas, a place to gossip, a place to laugh out loud at anyone, including our distinguished house guests.

 

One particular guest among all others ignited fits of laughter among the vendors. Perhaps there was something about his temperament that provoked them. Perhaps it was his German bowl haircut. Or maybe it was the fact that he often talked to himself. The man’s name was Patrick Aculu. I had always known Patrick Aculu as a strange little man from our church. He was thin and unassuming, watchful and quiet. Because his demeanor seemed over-tolerant, I was convinced he had suffered heavily at the hands of bullies in his school days.

The first day Patrick Aculu came to visit us, it was at Ma’s insistence. The market vendors, when they saw him, laughed with tears in their eyes. They clapped. They did not stop for a long time. I opened the door for him as soon as he made it past the vendors. I showed him into our sitting room. I even called him Uncle Aculu in the hope of pacifying him. But Uncle Aculu did not look up, did not show any interest in Ma’s gold cushion covers, the new curtains, or the vase with fresh roses.

 

On Uncle Aculu’s second visit the next day, the vendors still laughed, but the insult was not as severe as before. Uncle Aculu sat in the sitting room. When I went to the kitchen to make him some tea, Ma followed. I thought she wanted to help, but she just wanted to talk. Ma said I should not call Patrick Aculu “Uncle Aculu” anymore. It was better to call him Brother Patrick, she said, because he was our brother in Christ. I did not tell her that the Sunday school children would not have agreed. They called him Red Devil. They thought his eyes were the color of red devil peppers and that he talked like he was chewing fire, exactly like the devil on Uganda Television.

 

Red Devil became a daily guest. Every evening after his job skinning fish for export in the industrial area, he headed not to his home but to ours. Red Devil wore a brown polyester suit. He lined the suit’s pocket with two sets of pens in four colors: black, blue, green, and pink. I found the pens alarming, and constantly worried that Red Devil’s brain was not wired properly. It did not help that at dinner time he used too much Blue Band on his bread and blew at the tea. These were things Ma had punished me for with several slaps on the cheeks. They were things Ma said that only people with no manners did.

 

Now that he was a regular guest, Ma started to plan him into our evenings. When she bought maize flour, she added an extra quarter kilo just for Red Devil. When she cooked meat, she added three ladles of soup. When we ate dinner, she invited his thoughts and opinions. Ma encouraged him to speak like he was part of the family. That was generally the nature of our evenings, until Red Devil surprised me. I’d assumed he would always wait for Ma’s cue before speaking. He would seek her encouragement before venturing his observations. But after a few weeks, Red Devil’s confidence had grown bigger than the man himself.

 

Late one evening at the dinner table, Red Devil offered his unsolicited thoughts about the market vendors. I noticed he was careful about the way he approached the subject. Before he said anything, Red Devil dropped his hand into his plate. He did not take it out. The man looked at Ma and spoke like it was normal for a grown man to sit at a dining table with his hand stuck in his plate while he talked to his host about market vendors.

 

“Your backyard is beautiful,” Red Devil said, “but those vendors are too much. Have you seen the papers they leave on the grass? Have you seen how they pluck the roses? The way they leave your beautiful garden defiled, I cannot believe it sincerely.”

 

Ma did not speak immediately. When she did, she said, “Good point. Very good point, Brother Patrick.”

 

Chei, I thought, such nonsense!